As consumers come to expect as much from their mobile viewing experiences as from their TV viewing experiences, cable and mobile operators must seek more efficient ways to encode video. For this reason, choosing a broadly supported video codec makes all the difference when delivering content to new device platforms, reaching users in less developed areas and meeting distribution cost targets.
High Efficiency Video Encoding -- better known as HEVC -- is an advanced video codec that was ratified in 2013 and is widely recognized to be 40% to 50% more efficient than H.264. This benefits both network operators and video distributors by reclaiming as much as half of their usable bandwidth. But, in the early days of new technology rollouts, there can be adoption hurdles because the technology has not yet reached maturation and the ecosystem of distribution hardware and playback devices must still be built.
For this reason, Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s declaration at WWDC 2017 supporting HEVC sent a welcoming signal to distributors wondering if and when the largest and arguably most crucial mobile ecosystem in the world would adopt HEVC.
Apple's announcement came four years after the HEVC standard was ratified. With the weight of the TV industry pushing UHD displays, almost every UHD TV being sold already contained an HEVC decoder. This meant that as the gears of the consumer TV upgrade cycle turned, HEVC would enjoy broad support on the home screen.
But, at the same time that HEVC was advancing nicely in its technology and market development curve, a group known as the Alliance for Open Media (AOM) began working on an alternative video codec called AV1. And then in January, the unthinkable happened when Apple joined the AOM, confusing many industry watchers.
There are several theories why Apple joined AOM. But, regardless of the reason, you might be wondering, should I invest in HEVC or wait for AV1?
To answer this question, let's look at the comparative states of HEVC and AV1 in light of the following factors:
1. Technology benefits.
2. Technology support in the market.
3. IP licensing considerations.
HEVC is an advanced codec for real-time broadcast, virtual reality (VR) and VOD applications. It is available as software for cloud, on-premises and hardware implementations. Plus, it delivers immediate benefits over H.264, such as:
- 50% lower bitrates and smaller file sizes.
- Better visual quality.
- Improved user experience.
HEVC is mandatory for encoding 4K HDR content. It is being leveraged for some of the highest profile events, including the Winter Olympics, which is now being streamd in 4K HDR using HEVC.
In contrast, AV1 is an emerging, work-in-progress technology. When this article went to press, the AV1 bitstream had not been published and no commercial solutions could be deployed. Basic engineering considerations dictate that it will be at least four years before practical solutions can be developed with AV1. Only at that point will it be possible to consider the possible advantages of AV1 over HEVC.
With 1 billion enabled devices, HEVC boasts a robust active market. Five years after the ratification of the standard, HEVC playback support is available in the Apple ecosystem, smart TVs, STBs, media players and game consoles.
Because AV1 has not been ratified, outside of a few prototype implementations -- including an alpha implementation of the Mozilla browser, Nightly -- there is currently no playback ecosystem in the market for the new codec. So talk of AV1 leapfrogging over HEVC in less than five years is extremely optimistic.
Silicon vendors who supply the media processing and video decoding chips to the most popular media player vendors, game console makers and TV OEMs have reported that they cannot begin planning AV1 support in the absence of a ratified spec. This puts AV1 silicon support at least 24 months out (Q1 2020). What's more, these chips will then need to be integrated into consumer products before AV1 decoding can be made available.
IP and licensing considerations
When it comes to HEVC royalties, some question whether HEVC is a fee-heavy codec. The AV1 codec is alleged to be royalty-free and was conceived in direct response to the HEVC patent royalty requirements. But is this a meaningful distinction?
In practice, neither MPEG-LA nor Technicolor, nor Velos Media assess license fees for HEVC content distribution. And HEVC Advance does not charge a license fee for content that's distributed free. Streaming service providers like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Hulu, pay-TV services Layer3 and Sky, and such studios as Warner Brothers and Fox are all distributing HEVC encoded content. For many, this demonstrates that HEVC royalties represent a trivial cost in the overall economics of codec selection.
HEVC is for now
For cable and telecom providers seeking smaller video footprints, passing on HEVC in favor of AV1 exposes them to the risk of losing up to 54% of the North American mobile market. In a highly competitive market, any video service that is unable to match the performance of HEVC currently offered on Apple is sure to face pressure from services delivering high-quality 1080p HD video at bitrates under 2 Mbit/s. And with 5G, services may upgrade to 4K, further requiring HEVC.
Content providers and aggregators cannot stay out of the next-gen video market, nor should they. As consumer demand for video continues to grow at breathtaking speed, HEVC is the technology that is available today and can clear up video bottlenecks on the network without breaking the bank.
— Mark Donnigan, VP, Marketing, Beamr